On Writing Guns: Will a Conveniently Placed Item Stop a Bullet?

In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Ned Flanders takes two bullets to the chest. The pious neighbor walks away unscathed, all thanks to a Bible and a piece of wood from the ol’ rugged cross under his shirt.

Although the show is meant to be satirical, it’s a scene played out with a straight face in the rest of fiction, most notably the crime genre. A character is seemingly shot to death, only to stand back up thanks to a convenient object beneath the clothing that “stopped the bullet.”

So how close is this to reality? Is it possible for this to happen?

The Short Answer

Yes, but the odds are pretty low. Here’s why.

A bullet in motion, like any other projectile, transfers its kinetic energy into whatever it hits. That energy is what causes the bullet to penetrate a target, in this case a character. There are two ways to prevent this from happening: absorption and deflection.

Possibility #1: Absorption, aka “Stopping the Bullet”

In order for the bullet to stop, the energy needs to go somewhere other than into the character. The best bet is a material that can absorb that energy without causing injury to the character. It must be strong, yet flexible enough not to break.

That’s why ballistic resistant gear is made from threads of durable, synthetic fibers woven together. Energy leaves the bullet and becomes trapped in the web of the fibers, sort of like a soccer ball getting caught in the netting of a goal. Other variations are made from tough plates that act like high-tech armor, but still apply the same principle of absorbing the energy.

Any conveniently placed item – a book, a flask or even Ned’s piece of cross – needs to be able to do same. A malleable piece of metal would work better than wood, since that will splinter into pieces. However, metal can also indent and cause injury anyway.

What about a book? Or even the good book itself, the Bible? Books are decent at absorbing energy. However, larger calibers are going to punch through books – as well as other small items – without a problem.

Possibility #2: Deflection, The More Likely Option

That’s why deflection is more likely than “stopping the bullet.” Anything hard will do, although metal wins top honors. Don’t forget human bone, too. It’s actually a good candidate for deflection, especially the skull. Just remember that bullets don’t magically disappear. A deflected shot has to terminate somewhere.

Be it absorption or deflection, the conveniently placed item isn’t the only factor at play. Distance, caliber, bullet type, trajectory and more can all influence what happens. I made some generalizations here so writers don’t get all Tom Clancy on readers. Leave me a comment if you have a specific scene in mind.

Bottom Line: Luck Isn’t On Your Side

No matter what, the character with the conveniently placed item would be extremely lucky – and left with a bastard of a bruise. The item would also need to be lucky, since it would need to absorb or deflect the bullet’s kinetic energy without shattering or puncturing the character’s body.

That doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It’s just not probable. What a writer does with this slim percentage isn’t up to me. I’m just here to explain what’s going on here. Take my word for it. This isn’t one you want to try at home.

P.S. Cheers to writer bud Laura Roberts of ButtonTapper.com and BlackHeartMagazine.com for inspiring the topic of this post.

Get the Book

The Writers Guide to WeaponsThe Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:

2 thoughts on “On Writing Guns: Will a Conveniently Placed Item Stop a Bullet?

  1. This trick can definitely be overused in fiction and come off as a cheap escape for the hero. But one author I thought pulled it off was Stephen King, in Rage, where a sniper’s bullet hits a padlock in the narrator’s shirt pocket. It may be a little far-fetched, but King does a great job of making it seem real, giving him, as you say, a bastard of a bruise:

    The impact of the slug knocked me straight backward against the blackboard, where the chalk ledge bit cruelly into my back. Both of my cordovan loafers flew off. I hit the floor on my fanny. I didn’t know what had happened. There was too much all at once. A huge auger of pain drilled my chest, followed by sudden numbness. The ability to breathe stopped….

    The bullet had smashed through the hard, high-density plastic dial, sending highspeed bits of shrapnel out through my shirt. The steel behind the face had caught the slug, had turned it into a deadly lead blossom with three bright petals. The whole lock was twisted, as if by fire. The semi-circular lock bar had been pulled like taffy. The back side of the lock had bulged but not broken through.

    Also, I remember seeing an Antiques Roadshow in which someone had a pocket Bible (or maybe it was a flask) that was said to have saved a soldier’s life. So it does happen for a lucky few.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read Rage before, so thanks for sharing that scene. I agree with you, that’s a better way to describe that type of thing than the typical “character is shot, falls down, gets up, points out how lucky object stopped shot, delivers one-liner” trope.

      There’s another trope nestled inside that passage, where the character being shot is hurled backward. If there’s enough force to push the character being shot like that, there should be an equal amount of force tossing the shooter backward. If that’s the case, the projectile probably delivered enough energy to bust through the padlock. But like you say, King did an admirable job here.

      Overall, it’s challenging to come up with hard and fast rules for these things, because there are always exceptions. What I try to do on this site and in my book is give people information to consider before they head down the trope trail.

      I really appreciate your comment, Steve. Thanks for stopping by.


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